Saturday, April 14, 2018

Born Today In 1904, Legendary Actor Sir John Gielgud

Sir John Gielgud OM CH was born today, April 14, in 1904. He was an English actor and theatre director whose career spanned 8 decades. With Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, he was one of the trio of actors who dominated the British stage for much of the 20th century. 

A member of the Terry family theatrical dynasty, he gained his first paid acting work as a junior member of his cousin Phyllis Neilson-Terry's company in 1922. After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art he worked in repertory theatre and in the West End before establishing himself at the Old Vic as an exponent of Shakespeare in 1929-31.

During the 1930s Gielgud was a stage star in the West End and on Broadway, appearing in new works and classics. He began a parallel career as a director, and set up his own company at the Queen's Theatre, London. He was regarded by many as the finest Hamlet of his era, and was also known for high comedy roles such as John Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest

When avant-garde plays began to supersede traditional West End productions in the later 1950s he found no new suitable stage roles, and for several years he was best known in the theatre for his one-man Shakespeare show Ages of Man. From the late 1960s he found new plays that suited him, by authors including Alan Bennett, David Storey and Harold Pinter.

During the first half of his career, Gielgud did not take the cinema seriously. Though he made his first film in 1924, and had successes with The Good Companions (1933) and Julius Caesar (1953), he did not begin a regular film career until his sixties. Gielgud appeared in more than 60 films between Becket (1964), for which he received his first Academy Award nomination for playing Louis VII of France, and Elizabeth (1998). 

As the acid-tongued Hobson in Arthur (1981) he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His film work further earned him a Golden Globe Award and two BAFTAs.

Although largely indifferent to awards, Gielgud is one of only 12 people to have ever be an EGOT -- winner of an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony. 

He was famous from the start of his career for his voice and his mastery of Shakespearean verse. He broadcast more than a hundred radio and television dramas between 1929 and 1994, and made commercial recordings of many plays, including 10 of Shakespeare's. Among his honours, he was knighted in 1953 and the Gielgud Theatre was named after him. From 1977 to 1989, he was president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

On the evening of October 20, 1953, Gielgud, usually highly discreet about casual sex, was arrested in Chelsea for cruising in a public lavatory. Until the 1960s sexual activity of any kind between men was illegal in Britain. The Home Secretary of the day, David Maxwell Fyfe, was fervently homophobic, urging the police to arrest anyone who contravened the Victorian laws against homosexuality. Gielgud was fined; when the press reported the story, he thought his disgrace would end his career. When the news broke he was in Liverpool on the pre-London tour of a new play, A Day by the Sea. According to the biographer Richard Huggett, Gielgud was so paralyzed by nerves that the prospect of going onstage as usual seemed impossible, but his fellow players, led by Sybil Thorndike, encouraged him:

She grabbed him and whispered fiercely, "Come on, John darling, they won't boo me", and led him firmly on to the stage. To everybody's astonishment and indescribable relief, the audience gave him a standing ovation. They cheered, they applauded, they shouted. The message was quite clear. The English public had always been loyal to its favourites, and this was their chance to show that they didn't care tuppence what he had done in his private life ... they loved him and respected him dearly. It was a moment never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
His career was safe, but the episode briefly affected Gielgud's health; he suffered a nervous breakdown some months afterwards. He never spoke publicly about the incident, and it was quickly sidelined by the press and politely ignored by writers during his lifetime. Privately he made donations to gay campaign groups, but did not endorse them in public. In his later years he said to the actor Simon Callow, "I do admire people like you and Ian McKellen for coming out, but I can't be doing with that myself."

According to the Daily Mail
Even when he was in stable relationships, such as that with the actor and producer John Perry in the Thirties, Gielgud was never monogamous.

One of his earliest flings was with the Welsh actor and playwright Emlyn Williams, the son of a foreman in a North Wales ironworks. The details were never made public by either man, but Emlyn (flagrantly bisexual, with a wife and two sons) would boast in later years: 'I was Johnny's first bit of rough.'

Even during his last relationship with Martin Hensler, a mysterious and aggressive Hungarian who was his live-in companion for more than 30 years, Gielgud still hankered after other men.
Gielgud's companion, Martin Hensler, died in 1999. After this, Gielgud went into a physical and psychological decline; he died at home on May 21, 2000, at the age of 96.

1 comment:

Raybeard said...

He possessed my single most favourite voice that I've ever heard.

Could write a hefty volume on the rest of him - but I'll have to leave that till another time.